Eight poems by London-based poet, editor and translator Astrid Alben under World Poetry/Prose Portfolio, curated by Sudeep Sen
Reading ‘A Song’ by Goethe
The high-speed train clears Dover into the tunnel cutting
through sediments laid down some hundred million years ago.
It’s Gobi desert dark when the overhead lights pop on. I draw
in closer to the window. As I draw in closer my eyes and nose
touch the point of condensation. I will only ever know myself
as an image sliding back and forth between degrees of being
there. Not introspection but retrospection and that is why
Goethe, two months before he died, visited the mountain hut
at Ilmenau on whose walls he’d carved some fifty, yes fifty
years before that in all trees hardly a breath stirs. This was in
1832, the year in which the first hydrographical survey of the
channel was conducted. Nothing stirs here. As the train
pummels through the darkness my reflection swings limpidly
in and out of focus. At some hundred and fifty feet below the
seabed I pass right underneath my life with the earth out of
reach above me. I have slipped off the radar of existence. I am
without my end knowing where to find me. Elsewhere is radio
static, mechanical toys and the oblivion of the tides.
Elsewhere, unanswered letters uproot cathedrals. And wait,
wrote Goethe, you too shall rest before long.
It’s been eighteen months since I last received a letter.
There is the usual post from British Telecom,
a Liberty Special Offer, a flyer from Four Faces Take Away.
Today, a postcard from Cape Town, addressed to Faith.
‘Dear Faith’ it starts and she, meanwhile,
shrinking on her basement vine, cracks a smile. The TV drone
vibrating up the wall sounds like a planet turning in its grave.
Faith has a phobia of stairs. Going up or going down? and then,
It’s sunny out, spring is in the air.
Oh dear she says what’s not fair? I slowly peel each finger
from the Kouga Sugarbush photo-bombing
the humpbacked Table Mountain. It’s basking in the sun.
It’s been eighteen months since a letter came, since someone
revived my name in ink and asked ‘How are you? I’m doing fine.’
Conversation on Art
On The Japanese Bridge by Monet I say
the painter went blind in old age followed a puzzled silence
by a why? In front of Whistlejacket strange to paint a horse
just be glad it’s not a chicken why?
But in front of a pyramid by Paul Klee
that line is a dot that went for a walk
through the prehistory of you and me visible yet not two
but three I got that straight away and so did he.
La Morte Amoureuse
Saito Ryokan said elegance is frigid and he was right elegance
is a ballerina sinking in plié. Then Romeo killed whoever it was
killed Mercutio. Sarah Lamb is better as a corpse than in her pas de
deux her body a second hand rootless rounds the clock. What did
this pair of star-crossed lovers plan to do— sleep through death
pirouette their way to Veracruz in Mexico? Someone in the gods
coughs through Juliet’s dying shifts. Poet looks up. Looks down
and to the left. The row to the left is looking at me.
An Old Song
Elbows brushing in the street, a commuter’s clammy breath
diluting mine, a weary neck a black boy’s ghastly
smile I’m waiting for a bus like I’m waiting for a stranger to
tell me hurry up please or you’ll die. It’s impossible
to say if the human race is made up of tailor’s dummies
or invincible Titans who despite turmoil happiness and rage
—for now this poem has to do— act out an old song of an
angry mountain rattling in a cage.
Emily Dickens’ Disease
Poet with loneliness too daily to relate is taken off to a layby
planet for his recovery where he signs up with the Amateur
Resistance Society —A.R.S. for short — who instructs their
patients how to bloom through the Milky Way.
Poet fades from sight like a small lit up raft on an ocean
of stars so weightless and vast I’m left without you Poet
with manoeuvres in goodbye Poet
with how come nothing means without you nothing Poet.
The Radio Mast
How come sea turtles travel alone? Like satellites they have faithfully
shouldered their own frequency for one hundred million years.
Today is Sunday. Today is the boy I never got to be. He stands before
the radio mast, ‘No!’ he booms pushes out his ribs like a woofer,
‘Look!’ ‘No!’ Me!’ His face his hands his toes cling to the edge of dawn,
point south of the border, west of the sun. In GMT a night watchman
tunes into his radio to listen to the WHHOOOOOOO of the ocean
and believes a sea turtle has just checked into the Galaxy Hotel.
A Short Waiting Game
The phone rings it rings and rings it rings.
Poet advances to window stops turns paces the room
paces and paces Poet paces. Night lights a cigarette.
Poet hears indistinct mumbling doesn’t know who’s
talking renews pacing fumbles a cigarette
Ah! Agent Orange underbreath two and a half paces ahead
nono I hush-hushed back herbicide sit on tea with lemon
on we with lemon on lemon bitter bitter lemon.
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